“The Last Ship Out of Exville” by Phoebe Barton

They call me the Sorceress, because holding together a community like Exville takes a little magic. We’ve got outcasts from Earth and Luna, Martian dustpunks, Venusian hotshots, and Belter wanderers, and all of them with their own ideas of how to live together. It’d be even harder if we didn’t have all those fascists on Callisto growling at our door.

We watched them all the way in. One of our Martian card-readers cast a deck that said their engines would explode and they’d drift right by. More than a few of the dustpunks were disappointed when they flipped around and burned to a stop a hundred klicks off the docking collar.

“No guns,” said Star*Hope, a slender woman whose chromed-up arm meshed fine with her natural brown and let her play the meanest solos I’d ever heard. Breaking up the occasional bar brawl wasn’t ideal training for a standoff like this, but I trusted her. “Ordinary cutter. They want to hurt us, they’d have to ram us.”

“Packed with mid-shelf marines, I’ll bet,” I said. Callisto’s small, but its oh-so-friendly American patrons give it a steady drip-drip of equipment. Not the best there is, but in a junkyard like the Jupiter system, a beat-up six-string might as well be an axe. Out here, the best is overkill. “We can’t let them dock.”

“They’re going to love hearing that,” Star*Hope said. “Maybe they’ll ram us after all.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve got this.”

The Callistonian commander looked like an origami man folded out of pages torn from Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries. His uniform looked more lively than he did, even with all those sharp angles and gray fabric the color of a dead moon. I was glad to be looking at him through a dusty screen and not face to face.

“Ah, Miss Wise,” he hissed like a thousand snakes all tied together in a man’s shape. “May I say what an incredible job you’ve done on the renovations of Leda Station, with so little outside support?”

“Exville,” I said. “And no.”

“Very well,” he said, not put off at all. All part of the playbook. “I’ll be brief. I’m here to negotiate Callistonian access rights to your facility.”

“Could have spared you a trip if you’d radioed,” I said. Exville would be poisoned the second one of their jackboots came aboard. “No.”

“What you’ve done with your facility is incredible, but it is fragile,” he said. “You should be more willing to consider the realities of your position.”

I scoffed at that. Realities. All they wanted was another piece on the board, another shot at outflanking Ganymede in the two moons’ little not-yet-war.

“Okay, let’s negotiate,” I said, leaning into the microphone. “Kick the Leader, his general staff, and every single goose-stepping toady out an airlock without a suit, and then we’ll talk. Deal?”

He fixed me with a narrow-eyed glare. He must have gotten too used to what the uniform did for him back home. I tried never to think about ordinary Callistonians, trapped in their domes and tunnels, always listening for the echo of boots. Thinking about it hurt too much.

“If that’s your position, I hope you’re prepared to live with it,” he said.

“Just try us,” I said. Closing the connection didn’t feel as good as breaking his nose would have, but at least it was something.

* * *

Exville should have been the kind of place nobody cared about. It was a ridiculous idea from the start: an X-shaped habitat drilled into one of Jupiter’s gravel moons, a propeller spinning in space. When the first of us slid into orbit it was abandoned, falling apart, and so worthless that nobody back on Earth was willing to fight over it. When we sent the messages of claim back in-system, we barely got a shrug. Nobody on Earth cares what happens around Jupiter.

We were halfway through fixing up the first hab module when the fascists took over Callisto. There wasn’t much we could do for them but pump up the power on every transmitter we had. Life was tough down there even before the boots and grayshirts, but at least we could tell the people we hadn’t forgotten them.

The fascists hated that we were up here, making so much noise their people couldn’t fall asleep, but for so long they couldn’t do anything about it. We were just a sideshow next to their rivalry with Ganymede, but give them long enough and even fascists can get a little organized.

I still wish we’d been able to finish making it a home before time ran out.

* * *

A gunship burned out of Callisto orbit only hours after I gave their friends my best. Six million kilometers is nothing; they could have blasted Exville to scrap without leaving home. Those guns hid a lot of desperation.

The magic that kept Exville together wasn’t enough to go against guns like that, but at least we had time to weave one last, proper spell. The first night after the gunship lit up, I dragged all the broadcast equipment I could to the atrium and treated Callisto to Exville’s first and last live broadcast. Three hours of covers, originals, and pure hotshot fury filtered through strings and keys and drums, shouted out so loud they’d hear us on Mercury.

Once that was done, and everyone had a chance to sleep it off, we got to work. Our ship, the Interpunct, had room for everybody and enough reaction mass to make Ganymede. But it wasn’t easy. I know my own fingers were still burning from the way I’d lit up my guitar.

I found Star*Hope in one of the corridors on the third day, curled up and crying onto her pallet, brushing her cheeks blue. She’d been putting every spare moment she had into a mural, long and bright and full of starlit possibilities.

“They’d paint over it,” she sobbed. “No. They’d scrape it off and burn the chips.”

“It would’ve been amazing,” I said. “It still will be, wherever we end up.”

“I have to finish it.” She thrust her paintbrush like a fencing sword. “I can’t just leave it like this…”

“Hope.” I crouched in front of her, intercepted a brush, and got a big blue streak across my lips for the trouble. “We can’t stay. It was fun while it lasted, but this was always the risk we ran.”

I stayed there for as long as it took. Finally, after a while, the tears began to dry.

“It was fun,” Star*Hope said. For an instant I saw the outline of a smile. “I wish it could’ve lasted.”

“Don’t worry,” I said with a grin. “Just wait until you see the grand finale.”

* * *

Interpunct burned away from Exville, crammed with outcasts and dustpunks and hotshots and wanderers, a day before the gunship arrived. Every telescope we had was trained on the still-spinning city, and we recorded everything.

It hurt to watch them dock. To know their jackboots were echoing through the module I’d helped fix, through the corridors and compartments we’d made livable again. It hurt, even knowing how it was going to end.

Two hours after the invasion, Exville picked up speed. When it’d been ours we’d left it at one-quarter gee, a compromise that had taken a week to hash out, but we’d buried some warm welcomes where no Callistonian would ever find them. Callisto barely pulls a tenth of a gee, but before they could run back home Exville was spinning to equal Earth. Faster and faster, heavier and heavier, grinding up their hollow bones.

Pressing down on their necks like jackboots.

Star*Hope calculated later that they would’ve been feeling 3.9 gees when Exville gave up. It reminded me of a dandelion seed, with the modules thrown off the arms first and then the arms themselves spinning themselves apart.

It’s amazing what you can do when you set out to break something. It was beautiful, in its own way. The sort of beauty nobody would ever create just because. It was the beauty of our own desperation.

We made for Ganymede while the shards of Exville scattered themselves to the edges of creation. It’s a big moon, friendly and free. In a place like that, there’s always time for an encore.

Phoebe Barton is a queer trans woman who lives with a robot in the sky above Toronto. Her short stories have appeared in Analog and multiple anthologies. She’s reachable on Twitter at @aphoebebarton and online at www.phoebebartonsf.com.

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